An American Story by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dare Coulter

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  “How do you tell a story that starts in Africa and ends in horror?”  Kwame Alexander was moved to write this poem after he realized his daughter’s fourth-grade teacher wasn’t teaching students about slavery, because she was anxious and hadn’t been trained in how to teach that piece of the American story.  With distinctive illustrations that combine sculptures and paintings, the book portrays life in Africa, people being captured, the Middle Passage, and the horrors of slavery once they arrived in America.  The narrative is interspersed with pictures of a class learning from a teacher who is somewhat hesitant to teach the story, but who is encouraged by her students to tell them the truth.  How do you tell the story? “You do it/by being brave enough/to lift your voice,/by holding/history/in one hand/and clenching/hope/in the other.”  56 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  I have been sharing Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated with fourth and fifth graders this week, and I think this book is even more powerful.  I know I can feel uncomfortable talking to elementary students about racism and slavery, but they are ready to hear about it, and this is an important book for making sure that happens.  The illustrations are equally powerful and mark my first Caldecott prediction for 2024.

Cons:  I saw recommendations in several places for ages 4-8, but I think it’s more appropriate for older elementary kids.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, illustrated by P. J. Lynch

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  in this illustrated version of Robert Frost’s poem, a young woman in a long dress is riding her horse through the dark woods on a snowy night.  Each page contains a line or phrase from the poem with a realistic illustration of the girl, who eventually dismounts and pauses to observe the snow.  The endpapers are part of the story, with the front cover showing her riding through a lighted village and the back depicting the sun rising on a snowy landscape.  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  A beautiful introduction to a classic poem.  The female rider makes a nice new twist and spreading the text out one line at a time allows the reader to savor both the words and the gorgeous illustrations.

Cons:  Personally, if I got caught in a nighttime snowstorm in the woods while wearing a long dress, I would get on that horse and ride, not “stop by” for a lengthy meditation.

Yuck, You Suck! Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp Suck by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Eugenia Nobati

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  Thirteen animals are profiled in this poetry collection, from the tiny mosquito to the elephant.  Some animals, like the vampire bat, have a reputation for sucking but actually lap up blood from the animals they bite (is that better?).  The first poem introduces the concept of sucking, and the final one connects the animals to humans, who start their lives sucking milk.  Includes additional information about animals that suck, a list of additional resources, anatomical terms for body parts that suck, a glossary, and a bit more information on each animal.  32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  From the team that brought you Eek, You Reek! (about stinky animals) comes a book that is sure to catch the eye of many elementary students.  Most of the poems have catchy rhymes (although there’s a haiku thrown in, for the honeybee), and kids will get a kick out of the bug-eyed creatures in the illustrations.

Cons:  There’s a certain bloody gross-out factor inherent in the subject matter. You may not want to read this book before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and perhaps not too soon after either.

Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Modern Retelling of the Classic Spiritual by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Carole Boston Weatherford has created new words based on the traditional spiritual to trace the history of Black people in America.  Beginning with slavery, the verses and illustrations continue through Emancipation, the Great Migration, and the fights for integration.  The last few pages reflect the recent past and present: Florence Griffith Joyner, Colin, Kaepernick, and the Black Lives Matter Movement.  Includes additional information on each of the subjects, a list of online resources, and an author’s note.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Another beautiful resource for teaching Black history, with gorgeous thought-provoking oil illustrations.  The text, including the back matter, could serve as an excellent introduction to a variety of topics; readers can use the excellent list of online resources for further research.

Cons:  I wasn’t familiar with this spiritual and would have liked to have had the traditional words included somewhere.

Maya’s Song by Renée Watson, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Maya Angelou’s story is told in a collection of free verse poems, illustrated with watercolor and collage illustrations.  The story begins with her birth in 1928 and continues through her childhood spent in California, Arkansas, and Missouri, where “her mother’s boyfriend hurt her body, hurt her soul,” leading Maya to stop speaking for five years.  Her love of poetry helped her to recover her voice, and she went on to become a singer and then a poet, befriending James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.  Her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings brought her to national prominence; the story ends with her reading a poem at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, fulfilling her grandmother’s prophecy that she would be a preacher and a teacher.  Includes a timeline and notes from the author and illustrator.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  This amazing poetry biography is sure to be considered for multiple awards for both the writing and the illustrations.  I was immediately drawn into Maya Angelou’s story; Renée Watson is a masterful poet who tells the most difficult aspects of that story in a way that can be shared with young children.  The illustrations are gorgeous, layered with colors and patterns.

Cons:  No additional resources are given.

Out of this World: Star-Studded Haiku by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Matthew Trueman

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  This collection of haiku looks at different aspects of the universe including constellations, astronomers, stars, the sun, all the planets (even Pluto!), moons, comets, and asteroids.  Each poem is supported with mixed media art to show various spacescapes.  Includes additional information for each section, a glossary, a reading list, and a list of online resources.  48 pages; grades 2-6.  

Pros:  This book will appeal to many different types of readers: poets (a great intro to haiku), scientists, and artists.  The illustrations are awe-inspiring and will fire up kids’ imaginations about the wonders of space.

Cons:  I wish someone had come up with a slightly more imaginative title than the hackneyed “Out of This World”.

Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler by Ibi Zoboi

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

Summary:  This biography of science fiction writer Octavia Butler is told through a collection of poetry, photographs, and quotations from Butler.  Starting with her early life as a solitary child growing up in 1950’s Pasadena, readers get to see how Octavia’s struggles in school, her introverted nature, and her love of books combined to lead to her a life as a writer.  She was fascinated by science fiction, although almost all of the writers and heroes of the stories were white men.  After years of rejection, she finally began selling her stories and eventually wrote books that earned her Nebula and Hugo awards as well as a MacArthur fellowship.  Includes a final chapter on Ibi Zoboi’s connection to Octavia Butler (they shared a birthday and met in person several times, including a science fiction writing workshop) and a list of Butler’s books.  128 pages; grades 7-12.

Pros:  This unique biography is a pretty quick read but gives an intimate look at Octavia Butler’s life and writing.  Readers who are not familiar with Butler’s work (like me) may be motivated to seek it out after getting this introduction.

Cons:  I saw some recommendations for this book starting in fifth grade, but I think it would be better appreciated by middle school and high school students, since Butler’s books are for young adults and adults.

Because of You, John Lewis: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Keith Henry Brown

Published by Scholastic Press

Summary:  Tybre Faw grew up learning Black history and was particularly inspired by John Lewis.  In 2018, at the age of ten, he convinced his grandmothers to take him to Selma to be part of the commemoration of 1965’s Bloody Sunday.  Tybre met John on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the two became friends.  They walked together again in 2019 and in 2020 when John Lewis had been diagnosed with cancer.  Lewis died a few months later, and Tybre was invited to recite one of the congressman’s favorite poems, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley at the memorial service.  Includes additional information about both John Lewis and Tybre Faw, a timeline of Lewis’s life, a list of sources and resources for further reading, photos from both the 1960’s and the interactions between John and Tybre, and the text of “Invictus”.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  I marvel at the way this book is written, using beautiful poetry and watercolor illustrations to weave together the lives of both John Lewis and Tyre Faw, and showing the intersection between the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements.  The back matter adds a lot and gives resources for further exploration.

Cons:  I found it a little difficult to figure out when and at what age Tybre met John; it would have been helpful to me to have those dates included in the timeline.

Free At Last: A Juneteenth Poem written by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, illustrated by Alex Bostic

Published by Union Square Kids

Summary:  This free verse poem begins with the news arriving in Galveston, Texas: the war is over, and “all who live in bondage here shall from now until be free.”  The words and oil paintings depict Black people’s reactions.  Some head for their shacks, which they now declare home; some go to another farm to work “for a pittance and a little plot of space.”  Others pray, dance, or head farther away.  The last few pages depict their descendants celebrating that freedom, right up to the present day.  An author’s note tells how she was introduced to Juneteenth in the 1980’s and wrote this poem, originally published in 2004, and how Juneteenth has gained wider recognition, eventually becoming a national holiday in 2021.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The beautiful words and pictures in this book make it an excellent addition to Juneteenth literature, and a perfect way to observe the holiday.

Cons:  It would have been interesting to get more information about the fate of the different people portrayed in the book, and how their decisions to stay close to home or travel affected their futures.

Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech by Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek illustrated by Richard Jones

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  This poetry collection kicks off with “A Disappointment” in which the speaker sees a tree clowning on one leg and spinning a pie until a friend informs them that it’s just an old squirrel’s nest.  From there, the 27 poems are divided into four sections: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, and imagination is allowed to reign freely.  The poems are written in free verse, many just a single verse, and are illustrated with beautiful somewhat abstract paintings of nature.  Includes an afterword with messages from both poets inviting readers to let their imaginations run wild.  72 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  These poems written by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and acclaimed poet Connie Wanek are simple but beautiful in their use of imagery and metaphors that kids will relate to.  They’re short enough for elementary kids to be able to read and analyze them, yet rich enough to be used in classrooms into high school.  This book has gotten six starred reviews and was included on Betsy Bird’s spring Newbery predictions list, so look for it to get some awards consideration.

Cons:  I wish there had been some information about how the two poets worked together.